Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dinner: Mashi Phil-Phil (stuffed peppers)

Today's recipe is a wide-spread phenomena across cultures: stuffing vegetables. I guess you can only make so much vegetable soup before you need something else to do with all your vegetables.

The term 'mashi' in arabic means stuffed. In Egypt, anything that can be cleaned out to have an empty hole is game for stuffing. Eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, peppers, pigeon, grape leaf, cabbage leaf, are all popular items to be stuffed with the traditional meat and rice mix.

Most people are familiar with the Greek and Turkish versions of stuffed vegetables, known as Dolma. Back during the Ottoman Empire days, (1299-1922), obviously many of the foods were passed along the different countries (considered provinces under the empire). A popular dish during this time was Dolma. You can find this influence in many Eastern European countries such as Poland, and Hungary. What differentiates each version is the local spicing. So in this case, I will be focusing on the Egyptian twist to this.

Ever since I figured out how easy it is to make, I haven't really stopped stuffing. My undergrad years were spent experimenting with foods, so I tried out this stuffed pepper recipe a few times. The first time I had stuffed peppers wasn't through my family, but instead our Polish nanny. This was back in the day when the USSR was still around and she came to Canada to make money to send back home. Her name was Elizabeth, I think I was about eight years old. She wore jean overalls a lot of the time and wore her hair up in a bun. Anyways, she once made us dinner, and it was her version of stuffed peppers. If I remember correctly, I loved them mmmm

Instead of peppers, I grew up eating stuffed grapeleaves. I'm still addicted to them. I'll be making them in a few weeks. It's the same mix, just a different stuffing process and cooking process. When my sister, roommate and I travelled to Egypt together for a summer, my family panicked that we were on our own for so long. While we enjoyed the good life in our little apartment in Cairo, family members would always come by to drop-off some food for us, because they 'happened' to be in the area. One time, my cousin's mom walked the 15 minutes over to our place in the heat, after work. She arrived to our door with sweat pouring down her face. With a smile and a kerchief dabbing her forehead, she handed us this dish for us to eat; as if she stopped into a store to buy us candy. Not so much as these were painstakingly made stuffed mini-eggplant and zucchini. I still remember how lovely they were, especially since we were eating out all the time. We devoured them.

Anyways, today's dish is the first one to make as we ease our way into stuffing vegetables. Peppers are not native to Egypt, or to Europe for that matter. They come from Mexico, as do tomatoes, and were brought over by the Spaniards. These days, they are found everywhere under the name 'phil-phil'. I cook them in a tomato sauce, similar to the one used for bamya or basilia. Many other countries in the area have their own version, usually with just a rice mixture. If you are vegetarian, you can do that too. Personally, I find it lacks substance and flavour without the meat, and it just falls all over the place when you go to eat it. __________________________________________________
Total Preparation and Cooking Time: 3 hours
Yield: 4 persons


4 medium sized peppers (can be yellow, orange, green, red)
1 can of tomato paste
4 cups of water (or chicken/beef stock)
1 onion
1 cinnamon stick
8 cloves of garlic

1.5 cups of ground meat (lamb or beef)
1.5 cups of rice--no Uncle Ben's (the proportions of meat to rice are generally 1:1, if you want more rice or meat, adjust accordingly)
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon of ground allspice (optional)
salt, pepper

1. Wash peppers
2. Cut a hole from the top of the pepper so the top lifts off like a lid

3. Empty out all the seeds

4. Dice onions
5. In a medium sized pot (big enough to hold peppers together) sautée onions on high heat until they are soft
6. Add water (and/or broth)
7. Add the whole can of tomato paste
8. Turn heat down to low
9. Mix sauce until the tomato paste is evenly distributed
10. Add cinnamon stick
11. Add 4 whole cloves of garlic
12. Salt and pepper to taste
13. Leave it to cook while the peppers are being stuffed

14. In a large mixing bowl, add rice and meat
15. Finely chop or use a garlic press with remaining garlic cloves
16. Add garlic to mix
17. Add ground cinnamon and allspice (if available)
18. Salt and pepper to taste
19. Using your hand (with gloves if needed), thoroughly mix ingredients until it is uniformly distributed

20. Stuff each pepper about 3/4 full with stuffing
21. Pack the stuffing down, but not too tightly or it may explode during cooking

22. When all the peppers are stuffed, add the little lids back on (these aren't entirely necessary, but it can make cooking easier)
23. Add all stuffed peppers to the sauce to cook for about 2 hours

24. You can add more water or take away some so there is enough sauce to reach the top of the peppers
25. Peppers are done when the meat is well cooked, the rice is no longer hard, and the pepper itself is a little soft

And there you have it. This is the basic technique for stuffing vegetables. You can apply this same recipe to stuffing zucchini, eggplant, potato...anything. I've eaten some variations in a non-tomato sauce, but the flavours are not as complimentary to the spicing in the mix I find. It's the Egyptian answer to lazy cooking: stuff it.